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colleges: immigrants

Maria Metcalfe studies at Vancouver Community College: ‘There’s no harder experience as a parent than to leave your baby behind.’Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

When Maria Metcalfe first came to Canada in 2001 to work as a 25-year-old live-in nanny in Vancouver, she faced more than her fair share of obstacles to establish herself in a new and unfamiliar country.

A single mother, Ms. Metcalfe had to leave her two-and-a-half-year-old son with her parents in the Philippines, and armed with just a rudimentary understanding of English, she spent seven years in Canada striving to get ahead.

"It was really hard," she says. "There's no harder experience as a parent than to leave your baby behind, and then looking after someone else's baby was really hard. I would cry every day and every night."

She tried to improve her language skills at every opportunity, by listening to conversations on Vancouver's SkyTrain or borrowing cassette tapes from the local library, and in 2008, she became a landed immigrant. She was then able to bring her son over, and started a new job as a caregiver to senior citizens.

But her lifelong dream was still to be a nurse, so last January she enrolled at Vancouver Community College to take its Practical Nursing program. As she doesn't meet the prerequisites in English, biology and math, she is studying to bring those areas up to the required standard, beginning with taking English as a Second Language at VCC.

"They taught us what is the Canadian way in terms of education, in terms of communication with others, business, writing or speaking," she says.

The ESL courses are just one of a number of initiatives that VCC has put in place to help immigrant students transition to a new life in Canada.

"We have a number of different workshops that we do, all the way from study skills and Canadian workplace culture, to looking for a job in Canada," says Tanis Sawkins, associate director at VCC's Centre for Excellence in Immigrant Integration. "[We also do] time management and wellness workshops that are aimed at newcomers."

Ms. Sawkins also says that the English language courses at VCC go beyond mere language; they attempt to teach aspects of settlement as well. To that end, the school brings in guest speakers from organizations, such as the YMCA, the Vancouver Public Library, and experts in earthquake preparedness. It also puts on a conversation club with volunteers that meets with students so they can practise speaking more informally.

The benefits of trying to make immigrant students feel at home at the school are two-fold, she says. While immigrants gain the necessary experience and qualifications to transition to Canadian careers, their experiences also benefit Canadian-born students, who have a chance to work in multicultural groups, that mirror the makeup of workplaces in larger cities.

As a college in another multicultural city, George Brown College in Toronto is particularly conscious of catering to immigrant students. Alex Irwin, the school's director of immigrant education, says that, as of the 2013-14 school year, 44 per cent of students were foreign born, although that figure counts both immigrant and international students.

To help set them on the right foot, the school offers a number of programs, such as its entry advising service, which provides information about the school to prospective students.

Mr. Irwin says that about 70-75 per cent of the people who access that service are immigrants. "People come into Canada and are quite often baffled by the [education] system," he says.

The school also offers a prior-learning assessment and recognition program, designed to give credit to immigrants who have previously gained qualifications or experience elsewhere.

"A profile of an internationally trained immigrant could be that they are a bit older, … [in their] 30s or 40s, with kids, family and they're working," he says. "So it's great if they can find some way to reduce their course load and still get credit for it."

For that reason, Mr. Irwin says, soft-skills workshops such as those focusing on time management or communication often don't resonate with the immigrant community because they are juggling so many different things at once.

That was certainly the case for Jorge Montoya, a native Colombian who moved to Canada four years ago as a refugee. Mr. Montoya had previously spent 10 years in the United States working at a college in Orlando, but his application for refugee status was denied.

However, his wife had family in St. Catharines, Ont., so they and their two young boys relocated to the Great White North. Mr. Montoya started out doing odd jobs, such as cleaning and working in a factory, but soon decided he wanted more.

A trip to the multicultural centre in St. Catharines brought forth a recommendation for Niagara College, and Mr. Montoya was soon enrolled, and this April he successfully completed a bachelor's degree in international commerce and global development. He is now working for the school's International Partnerships Office, helping develop a food science program at a school in Vietnam, but ultimately harbours ambitions to become a manager at a college or corporation.

"To me the community college system is great," he says. "It has helped me as a stepping stone to get into a professional work force and to dream about one day becoming a manager or … a vice-president of a division here or at another college."

Despite family commitments, he took part in the applied education program, which he says helped him learn to use the Excel spreadsheet program and databases, mainly through hands-on practical workshops.

The school says immigrants are important to its functioning in the Niagara community. The college invites Niagara-region settlement services to campus to support the students and its English services.

It has also introduced a mentorship program.

"For new immigrant students or new international students we have a peer support program. Senior students reach out to students as they're coming in, many times from their own country but sometimes just another student who has gone through a transition process before," says Sean Kennedy, vice-president, student and external relations, at Niagara College.

The school also makes efforts to immerse immigrant and international students in Canadian culture, such as helping out at a maple sugar farm or having volunteers host the students on holidays such as Thanksgiving.

For Ms. Metcalfe, even 15 years after landing in Canada, the biggest change to get used to is the winters, even in Vancouver. But she has learned along the way.

Coming from a tropical country, she says she is always cold. "At first I was shivering and it was summertime."

But among her new Canadian survival skills, she says learning how to dress warmly in winter was a key one.

Read the full Report on Colleges here.